A View of HIV from Kenya

By Rob Banaszak on December 6, 2012 in HIV/AIDS Awareness Days, World AIDS Day

by Julia Cheng, former AIDS United Zamora Fellow

Hello and habari zenu!

On this World AIDS Day, I greet you from Kenya.  I’m a Peace Corps volunteer working as a science teacher at a secondary school about 22 kilometers (about 14 miles) from the nearest paved road.  Two years ago, I was at AIDS United in the policy department as a Pedro Zamora fellow.

Today I’m Kisumu.  I’m running a half-marathon for Worlds AIDS Day.  Running this half marathon has got me thinking about the parallels between Kenya and in the U.S.   AU is finishing up its second year of the Team to End AIDS endurance training program.  That’s one similarity between the U.S. and Kenya.  But there are just as many differences for all the similarities.  In the year I’ve been here I’ve learned and experienced many things, some of which I wanted to share with you.

It might go without saying that my jobs in Kenya and in Washington, D.C. have been very different.  At AU, everyday, my work directly revolved around HIV and AIDS  and working on big picture issues.  As a teacher, my work has almost been the opposite.  Most of the time, I teach biology and physics which usually have little relevance to HIV.  But, once a week for each form (grade) I teach a life skills class where I get to talk about HIV, sex, goals, decision making, and all those unique challenges that teenagers and young adults face.  As a teacher, I work directly with students.

HIV in Kenya and the U.S. is very different.  Just by the statistics, Kenya differs from the U.S. by having a higher prevalence rate, around six percent.  Like other African countries, here the epidemic is generalized among the population.  But, attitudes to the virus are different too.  Ask any school age child what HIV or AIDS is and they’ll be able to tell you what it stands for, how you get it, and they might even be able to sing a song about it.  Yet, how well have they absorbed this information?  And of course, misinformation still abounds.

The biggest difference to me is not the misinformation–the things I heard growing up in Mississippi don’t always sound too different from here.  The major difference is comprehension and accesibility to alternative information.  In the U.S., there are books, libraries, the internet, or a trusted adult that a student can ask sensitive questions to.  In Kenya, that is not necessarily the case.  Access to books is lacking, at my school, students share the text books.  A few subjects have only three or four books for a classroom of forty.  Books outside of the required texts are rare and highly valued.  Students lack access to computers, the internet, and most importantly lack computer literacy.  The adult they may ask might have the same access or even less access to information as the student.  For those adults with information, the student may be too intimidated to ask.

Like all misinformation, some is obvious to students.  For example, during a model school exercise, I and other current volunteers asked students to play a game of “fact or myth.”  We had students write things they had heard about HIV and together, decided if they were facts or myths.  Some concepts, like “albino’s can’t get HIV,” students instinctively knew as a myth.  However, ideas like “condoms do not prevent against HIV” were more confusing.  My students and others across the country have heard both that condoms can protect them and that condoms are not 100% effective from veritable sources.  Which are they to believe?  Explaining why they might have heard both things and how both are true is where most of my work comes in.

Another big difference–that, to be honest, I haven’t quite yet figured out yet–are attitudes to testing.  For example, one life skills class, I decided to take my students to the local dispensary.  I wanted to expose them to where they could be tested and to show them what the process of testing and counseling looked like.  One of the clincians suggested that after the demonstration, students that wanted to be tested could do so.  I agreed, but expressed skepticism.  Yet, to my surprise, each and every student that I brought wanted to get tested.  This, despite my repeated assurances that they did not have to and were not expected to. In all, three fourths of the school (~160 students) were tested, the limiting factor become the number of available tests.

Attitudes and reactions to HIV are different everywhere.  Even attitudes and reactions to running are different everywhere.  In training for this half marathon, sometimes I’d have to explain myself.  In Kenya though, it’s easy for me to explain. Everyone here knows the word marathon since some of the top marathon runners in the world come from Kenya.  In some other places though, I don’t doubt most people would be craning their necks to see what I was running from.  In the U.S., attitudes to running and HIV can be highly geographic.  For HIV, this makes our job more difficult.  There’s no one method that we can use to tackle the epidemic.  But it can also help us.  Part of the reason I came here is that I’ve always appreciated learning from people different from me.  Learning how to live in a different country, run in a different country, and address HIV issues in a different country has made me a more capable person.  In a similar way, learning and experiencing other attitudes and ways of addressing HIV, we can become more capable at dealing with the full spectrum and diversity of our world and our country.

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